Treasures: Spellbound by jewellery
Ireland's fine arts, antiques and collectables column
'Is that a horcrux?" asked the boy. Anne Hawkins, dealer in vintage costume jewellery, checked that her young customer had a parent in tow. He did. She replied that she'd never thought of the piece as a horcrux, although it did look like one.
A horcrux - in case you spent the last 20 years under a stone - is a magical object in which a witch or wizard has hidden a fragment of their soul. Horcruxes are a central theme in JK Rowling's Harry Potter novels, in which the soul of Voldemort was concealed in seven objects including a ring, a locket and a diadem.
Hawkins and the boy commenced to search through the bright sparkly objects on her stand and came up with a brooch, another possible horcrux. "He came back later and bought both of them," Hawkins said. "I gave him two for the price of one. He'd given me one of the best moments of my day."
Hawkins is a regular exhibitor at the antique and vintage fairs, organised by Hibernian Antique Fairs, which take place around the country every few weeks. The next, and the biggest of the year, takes place in Limerick's South Court Hotel this weekend.
With more than 100 stands, many of the dealers will be bringing serious antiques - silver, furniture and books. That's probably why the many children who visit the fair (there's no entrance charge for kids) are attracted to stands of vintage costume jewellery.
Hawkins' stand may look like a sweet shop and with pieces ranging from €6 to €60, she has plenty of objects at pocket-money prices, but vintage costume jewellery isn't just for kids. "I have repeat customers that come back every year - they always know exactly what they want," she says. Over the last few years, she's noticed a revival of interest in brooches, especially among younger women. "I've had a couple of brides-to-be looking for brooches to use as part of a bridal bouquet."
Another inventive young woman couldn't find a suitable brooch for her bouquet, but decided that she could adapt a pair of clip-on earrings. Most of what is sold as "vintage costume jewellery" dates from the mid 20th century and much of it is 'signed', meaning that it carries the mark of a known designer. But, as Hawkins points out, it's quite possible to find well-made pieces of excellent design.
If you're wondering about the potential value of a piece, first look for a signature on the back. Then check the 'findings' (that's the clasps and fastenings). If the findings are beautifully made, it's likely that you have something of value. Next, check the stones. Are they multi-faceted? Is the colour combination good? And are they claw-set, like real gemstones, or simply glued into place?
Non-precious jewellery has a long tradition, but the genre that we know as 'costume jewellery' was pioneered in the 1920s by Coco Chanel, who designed flower and frog-shaped accessories using non-precious metals and imitation gemstones.
"European costume jewellery tended to use cut glass, but in America, they preferred rhinestones, which are rock crystals and have more sparkle than glass," says Eileen Staley, who runs Strictly Vintage with her sister, Carol McCullough. Strictly Vintage deals in high-end American costume jewellery from the "film star era" of the 1940s and 1950s. The sisters specialise in pieces by known designers, with prices ranging from €20 to €1,000. Big-name brands from Strictly Vintage include Hattie Carnegie, Original by Robert, Joseff of Hollywood, Trifari, Eisenberg and Miriam Haskell, who is widely acknowledged as the queen of costume jewellery. Haskell, who established the Miriam Haskell Company in New York in 1926, wasn't a designer herself, but her intricately handcrafted floral-themed costume jewellery was tremendously popular then - and hugely collectible now.
Most of the jewellery sold by Strictly Vintage is made of non-precious metals, apart from that made in America in the early 1940s. During the Second World War, base metals were called in for wartime use and sterling silver was used as an alternative.
At the same time, trade disruptions made it difficult to import rhinestones from Europe, so makers turned to alternative materials. This gave rise to some very interesting jewellery. If you find a pair of nicely-made plastic or cloth earrings with sterling silver findings, they probably date from wartime America. But the most noticeable thing about vintage jewellery isn't the material - it's the design. Often large scale, glittering and obviously glamorous, these inventive art pieces draw the eye, possibly more than most precious jewellery does. As the artist Salvador Dali memorably said: "The difference between false memories and true ones is the same as for jewels: it is always the false ones that look the most real, the most brilliant."
You'll find Anne Hawkins at the National Antiques Fair, in the South Court Hotel, Limerick, tomorrow (10am-4pm) and Sunday (11am-6pm). She'll be one of a number of dealers in costume jewellery at the fair. Others include Patricia Doyle, who will be bringing a range of signed pieces from Miriam Haskell, Dior, Schiaparelli and Coro, with prices from €30 to €300.
Strictly Vintage will be taking part in fairs at the Cooke Centenary Hall, Ormeau Road, Belfast (25 March); St Nicholas Church Hall, Cadogan Park, Belfast (1 April) and the Royal Marine Hotel, Dun Laoghaire (2 April).
See facebook.com/strictlyvintagejewellery and firstname.lastname@example.org.
In the salerooms
JOHN WELDON AUCTIONEERS
Poor Noel Lemass. On July 23, 1923, the 26-year-old engineer was seized from his home in Dundrum by "persons unknown". His friends and relations never saw him alive again. His "decomposed and dismembered" remains were found near Kilkakee, the following October. This sad mystery comes from an old ledger, the "District Register of Crime" (c.1922-23) from the District of Dundrum, County Dublin.
Less serious crimes listed include the theft of fishing rods from Brittas Fishing Club. The "known thief" was convicted and sentenced to nine months' hard labour. The ledger is one of the items coming up for auction at John Weldon Auctioneers on Tuesday.
For an auction house that specialises in fine jewellery and silver, this is an unusual lot and has no reserve. More typically, jewellery in the sale ranges from a fine diamond three stone ring set in platinum (est €9,000 to €12,000) to an Igor Carl Faberge gold, enamel and sapphire carousel swan pin brooch (est €200 to €400).
The sale takes place on Tuesday at 2pm in Cows Lane, Temple Bar, Dublin 8, see jwa.ie.
A pair of multi-coloured sapphire and diamond chandelier drop earrings, mounted on 18ct white gold and with sapphires in pink, orange, yellow, green and blue (est €2,000 to €2,500) is among the lots on offer at O'Reilly's next auction of fine jewellery, which takes place on Wednesday at 1pm at O'Reilly's of Francis Street in Dublin. See oreillysfineart.com.
R J KEIGHERY ANTIQUES
The next auction at R J Keighery Antiques, Waterford, takes place on Monday at 10.30am. Expect a range of furniture, painting, jewellery and glass, including a large Waterford Crystal "Etoile" chandelier (est €5,500 to €7,500). For full details, see antiquesireland.ie.